As with most endeavours, even Italian post-war coachbuilding, there is no failsafe recipe for success. Particularly when illustrious British marques are involved.
From today’s perspective, it’s all too easy to get misty-eyed when recalling rather more halcyon periods in the evolution of the bespoke luxury automobile. For today’s coachbuilt cars seem to offer rather less grace than the standard vehicles they are based upon, thus underlining that rarity is no quality in itself. Yet even in the autumn days of traditional coachbuilding, when the arrival of the monocoque body had already spelled the end of the industry as it had existed in its heyday, not every sheetmetal change was for the better.
Not even in the case of Pininfarina, whose reputation surely requires no further elaboration here. The Hanson Pininfarina-bodied Bentley T1 coupé, unveiled in 1968, should have been a delightful cocktail of Anglo-Saxon formal and Italianate casual elegance. Clearly, the intention behind its appearance was to lend it a somewhat more modern appearance than that of the car it’s based upon, thanks to crisper lines, rectangular head and round rear lights, as well as a hint of a tapering fastback rear end.
On paper, this may sound like the ingredients for a most promising ’60s update of the legendary Bentley R Type Continental. In reality, it resembles an expensive dish, served at a restaurant of excellent repute, that doesn’t simply fail to tickle the taste buds, but some of whose ingredients are of less than first-rate quality.
As with the later (series production) Rolls-Royce Camargue, the Hanson Bentley’s problems begin with a weak stance and hence overbodied, underwheeled appearance. Being seemingly based upon a platform one or two sizes too small for its body makes the T1’s fastback roofline appear almost like a mockery – as though Robert Morley had tried to squeeze himself into one of Gianni Agnelli’s dapper suits. The details, such as the light units front and rear, are also executed in rather crude a fashion.
Next to the British ‘base’ car, Pininfarina’s T1 seems rather uncouth. Whereas JP Blatchley’s design, albeit rather old-fashioned at the time, possessed an air of genuine luxury and elegance, the Hanson Bentley comes across like a rush job that clearly didn’t strive to push any envelopes whatsoever.
The same goes for another one-off large coupé, presented one year later – only to an even greater extent. This time, a Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL 6.3 base car was used to create a design that – with all due respect to Pininfarina at the height of its creative and artisanal abilities – must simply be described as quite amateurish.
As with the Bentley, the source-car’s manufacturer also offered a very comely coupé. In fact, it’s rather difficult to imagine a more pleasing blend of bechromed opulence and dignified, lithe elegance than Sindelfingen’s W111 coupé – but one exceedingly well-off Dutch owner of a Mercedes 300 SEL 6.3 clearly thought otherwise, commissioning Pininfarina for a more modern take on a large, luxurious, two-door Mercedes.
The result however reflects upon whoever was in charge of its appearance in the most unflattering manner. As with the Hanson Bentley, the PF 300 SEL 6.3 falls well short of the standards set by its supposedly more mundane donor vehicle. In the Mercedes’ case, the execution of the coupé’s bodywork is of such woeful quality that one has to wonder how it was ever allowed to pass the Pininfarina workshop’s gates, sporting the carrozzeria’s proud signet.
With front lights (barely) integrated into blocky recesses, a grille unaligned with them, and featuring a three-pointed star at its centre that looks very lost indeed, the PF 300 SEL’s problems are both of the subtle and blatant variety. Little wonder it was last seen in a rather shabby state, parked in front of an unexceptional car dealership, somewhere in the Netherlands.
Next to Pininfarina’s shameful Mercedes, the third example of Anglo-Italian misapprehansions appears rather accomplished. Which has much to do with the task its creator, Pietro Frua, was presented with by his client: The Italian designer was asked to turn a monumental Rolls-Royce Phantom VI limousine into a contemporary convertible.
While proportions don’t lie and Frua’s Phantom drophead coupé by consequence suffers from being obviously based on an ill-suited architecture; quite in contrast to the Pininfarina coupés, this Turinese designer seemed to be rather more serious and ambitious about his assignment. For despite the obvious Lady Penelope air about it (and a grill of such a vast size, it might present someone at Munich’s Knorrstraße facilities with a decidedly silly idea for the Rolls-Royce Cullinan’s upcoming facelift), the oversized, open-top Phantom almost works.
In terms of stylistic craftsmanship, the Frua Phantom betrays the kind of care and attention absent from Pininfarina’s duo of Crewe-based concoctions. Maybe the exceptional designers at Grugliasco wanted to keep their best ideas for the upcoming Fiat 130 Coupé. Maybe they were too busy with other, more pressing and/or lucrative assignments to pay attention to the British duo, whereas Frua spent two years finessing the oversized Royce. But nevertheless – and even after the passage of five decades – Pininfarina produced minor embarrassments, whereas Frua achieved rather more than what could realistically have been expected.
In either case, these flawed examples of Italian coachbuilding prove that nobody is beyond reproach. Not even Turinese car designers of the 1960s. Moreover, these cars illustrate that whereas modern-era coachbuilt cars tend to be too ornamental, too elaborate for the sake of it, coachbuiling also possessed the capacity of being quite crude and simplistic.
In either case, the lesson to be learned for prospective luxury car owners would also be very simple indeed: Just buy the production model instead.